DENVER - For Jasmine Poblano, a 14-year-old aspiring journalist, the chance to put a tough question to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was too rich to pass up.
So after requesting the microphone at a question-and-answer session in downtown Denver on Thursday morning, the scrappy eighth-grader from Colorado Springs' Russell Middle School delivered a doozy.
'Do you ever feel like you have too much power? ' she asked, igniting a wave of laughter from a crowd at the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center and a warm smile from Sotomayor - not to mention a thoughtful, earnest response in which the famously down-to-earth Supreme Court justice spoke about the importance of humility and hard work and the value of the good old-fashioned gut check.
'Power can corrupt, ' Sotomayor said. 'And if you don't sort of notice it, it can take you over. I try really hard to stay true to me. '
With that, a budding reporter bagged her first big quote, and an audience in the hundreds got a bit more insight into Sotomayor's character.
Sotomayor, who in 2009 became the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, spent more than an hour Thursday speaking to students and taking questions as part of dedication ceremonies at Denver's Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center, a $258 million courthouse complex equipped with a state-of-the art learning center where children learn about the judiciary through interactive video displays.
Three hundred students, chosen from 1,500 applicants, from across Colorado attended. The students submitted essays for the chance to meet with Sotomayor and hear her address in person. Winners were picked by student participants in the Colorado Youth Advisory Council.
While waiting for the guest of honor, the eighth, ninth, and 10th-graders mixed with Colorado lawmakers, met members of state's highest court and nervously work-shopped their questions.
'I want to know who her role models were growing up and what inspired her to be a justice, ' said Jessica Chen of Rampart High School, who volunteers at Teen Court in Colorado Springs, a diversion program for juveniles.
'Just to meet a Latina Supreme Court justice is an honor, ' said Kevin Sullivan, a Coronado High School student whose mother and grandparents are of Mexican descent. 'It shows that really no matter what ethnicity you are, where you come from or how beaten down you are, hard work still pays off. The American Dream is alive. '
In her remarks, Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, recounted her path from a poor family in the Bronx to the nation's highest court, where she is among a panel of nine judges whose rulings shape the face of law and order in the U.S.
'When I was your age, I didn't know there was a Supreme Court, ' Sotomayor told the group, adding that in her neighborhood, 'Perry Mason ' was the only lawyer she knew of - and became her inspiration to chart new horizons.
She challenged the audience to match her achievement: 'If anybody in this room becomes a justice, I'll swear you in. '
While asking about cases before the Supreme Court was prohibited, students peppered Sotomayor with questions about the research that goes into her work, the challenges she overcame, and the burden of being stereotyped.
'That's been the biggest challenge ? dealing with people's expectations, and having fun proving them wrong, ' Sotomayer said to applause.
She encouraged the children to 'take chances ' - especially when they believe they will fail.
'Take a new course you don't think you can do. Try a new activity after school, ' she said. 'You can't dream unless you know what the possibilities are. '
After the Q & A session was over, Sotomayor posed for pictures with students, many of whom gushed over her performance while waiting in line.
'I loved it, ' Poblano said of Sotomayor's answer to her question. 'It was very philosophical. '
Joshua Ferkin of Palmer High School was beaming after Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica M. Marquez approached to compliment him on his question for Sotomayor, which asked how she managed to overcome life's setbacks. 'I've gotten a lot of compliments, so I'm proud, ' he said.
Each student received a signed copy of Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, and two attendees helped her cut a ribbon on the complex learning center - after which Sotomayor and one of the students exchanged a high-five.
'It was very inspirational, ' said Delaney Keeler, a 14-year-old student at The Vanguard School in Colorado Springs.
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
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